Early in the summer, the United States Anti-Doping Agency sent
Dr. Don Catlin a used syringe.
The needle was given to the USADA by an anonymous “high
profile” track and field coach concerned that athletes might
be using a mysterious performance-enhancing drug.
It had just a few drops of residue in it. That’s all
After months of work and dozens of tests, the head of
UCLA’s Olympic Analytical Laboratory made some momentous
discoveries: The residue was a previously unknown and undetectable
anabolic steroid, and that steroid was present in urine samples of
athletes who had been cleared for previous competition.
Now, USADA officials say they may have uncovered the biggest
steroid scandal in history ““ what the agency’s chief
executive, Terry Madden, called “intentional doping of the
Olympians could be suspended for the 2004 games in Athens,
And it all started at UCLA with what Catlin called “a
When the lab received the substance, the first step was to
develop a chemical “fingerprint” of it. That required a
process called gas chromatography/mass spectrometry
““Â or, GC/MS ““ analysis.
GC/MC analysis involves separating all component compounds of a
sample and, once separated, putting them through a mass
spectrometer, which maps compounds’ chemical structure in a
series of peaks and valleys.
After completing the GC/MS process, it was clear to Catlin and
researchers working with him that they were dealing with a
substance they had not seen before. Working with an unfamiliar
compound, they were faced with the challenge of discovering its
The researchers were able to conclude the substance was not a
stimulant after about a week, Catlin said. Soon after, it became
apparent that they had a steroid.
Finally, they mapped out a molecular structure of an anabolic
steroid they felt matched that of the substance in the syringe.
And then, “We synthesized it. We made our own,”
After putting the synthesized material
““Â tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG ““Â through the
spectrometer, they found it to be chemically identical to the
substance in the syringe.
“We knew we had it,” Catlin said.
Lab researchers developed a test for the steroid and ran tests
on hundreds of old urine samples.
Catlin found that samples that failed the new steroid test, had
passed old ones. Catlin did not specify how many samples failed,
but the USADA said Thursday that several track athletes tested
positive for a steroid that was not detectable in late June, at the
time of their first tests.
The steroid appears to have been designed to have the same
effect as other steroids, but to be chemically different enough to
slip by tests, Catlin said.
“They were clever,” he said.
He later added, “I wish I could talk to the chemist (who
Though the chemist’s identity remains a mystery, USADA
officials say they have a good idea who was dispensing THG.
In a statement, the USADA said the coach who provided the
syringe identified the source of the substance in it as Victor
Conte, owner of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative in Burlingame,
In e-mails to The Associated Press, Conte both denied that he
distributed THG and said there is no chemical proof that THG has
the same effect as other steroids.
There is little empirical evidence open to public about what THG
can do to the body.
“The people who’ve taken it won’t tell what
happened to them,” Catlin said.
Still, officials maintain they are fairly certain BALCO was
distributing the steroid.
BALCO was raided in early September by the Internal Revenue
Service and a local drug enforcement task force.
Numerous media reports say that as many as 40 athletes have been
called to testify before a grand jury regarding BALCO, whose
clients reportedly included baseball sluggers Barry Bonds, Jason
Giambi, All-Pro NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski, and world-class
sprinters Kelli White and Marion Jones.
Catlin said the THG discovery was unlike anything he had ever
But the doctor’s reputation as a leader in the efforts to
stop doping was already established.
A few years ago Catlin discovered that a substance that created
higher blood-oxygen levels ““Â thus giving boosts to
athletes competing in endurance competitions ““ was slipping
The UCLA lab he runs is the only International Olympic
Committee-accredited lab in the United States. When the winter
Olympics came to Salt Lake City, Catlin led a team of 60 members of
UCLA’s lab who were responsible for testing athletes.
At that point, Catlin expressed confidence in his ability to
detect drugs for which tests existed, but acknowledged that some
tests still needed to be developed.
And now, even after developing a test that could have
devastating impacts for those intent on cheating in sports, Catlin
said there still could be work to do.
“There could be more out there that we don’t know
about,” he said.
With Associated Press reports.